By Phil Hall
By Phil Hall
When you look at the mountain of self-help books you should laugh. This is the correct response to most of them. Each one usually contains only one or two interesting ideas. Typically, these ideas are derivative and oversimplified versions of the work of someone else, someone more serious. More moral. The majority who write these books come across as dangerous, messianic chancers.
But that’s not to say that there is no value in these books. You can find wisdom anywhere. You can find pleasure everywhere. It’s important not to be too snobbish.
And so, the self help Gurus pick through discarded theories from psychology and turn them into practical ideas. Psychologists themselves would never dare do so. They wouldn’t actually suggest that these half baked ideas be implemented.
Self help gurus, on the other hand, trawl through the bins put out by religion, sociology, anthropology, business practice, education and every other field. They find something nutritious in the bins that someone else has thrown out and extract it. Perhaps what they find is a little smelly, a little old, a little politically incorrect. But they clean it off, clean it up, take it home and make it theirs. Then they write their self help book.
Two interesting and effective ideas many self-appointed, self help Gurus tout in different forms are the power of strengthening your intention and your attention.
The odd thing is that sometimes the ideas in these books, based on assertions and beliefs and unadulterated chutzpah, work. Sometimes the books only work as wish fulfillment; Mills and Boon. Zane Grey. You too can be Steve Jobs. Two interesting and effective ideas many self-appointed, self help Gurus tout in different forms are the power of strengthening your intention and your attention.
The sad thing is that many of the people who are successful in publishing self help books (and for every success there are ten thousand Americans who have failed to sell their idea for certain success) are often not particularly cultured or cosmopolitan and so the texture of their writing grates a little. Of course I am thinking of people like Tim Ferris and Anthony Robbins.
‘Unadulterated Chutzpah’ is a good name for a self help book
Here are some of the titles you will see. You are probably familiar with most of them, they are sold, surprisingly, in respectable bookshops like Waterstones:
You are a Badass
The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*uck
The Power of NOW
Think and Grow Rich
Rich Dad, Poor Dad
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
Awaken the Giant Within
The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari
12 Rules for Life
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
The Science of Getting Rich
Feel the Fear and do it Anyway.
The essential argument which works both for and against these books is that they claim you are responsible for your own fate and a master of your own destiny. Society is not responsible for making your luck.
In other words, anyone who is unsuccessful is unsuccessful not because of any aspect of the society they live in; they are responsible for their own success. People fail in life not because of any form of discrimination or unfairness, you see, not because of their vulnerability to exploitation or the poverty in which they may have been born, but because their philosophy of life is wrong.
These self help books all pretend that success is within the grasp of the individual. On one level that is extremely empowering. For example, my grandfather was allowed into a top Austrian gymnasium despite being a Jew from Bohemia and, foolishly, he was then, ever afterwards, forever grateful to the reactionary Austrian Monarchy. He worked hard, in good faith, and was rewarded – until he was eventually shunted off into the Prague Ghetto. In many ways the Prague Ghetto was worse than the Warsaw Ghetto.
But I remember one of my students. She was an Afghan refugee. She watched her auntie die at home in childbirth because the Taliban had put a curfew on in Kabul and no one could take her to hospital. She swore to become a doctor. As a young girl she went as a refugee to Holland where she studied her heart out. She was first in her class. When they asked her what she wanted to be she said a doctor and they told her she could not apply. These jobs were reserved for the Dutch. My Afghan student worked hard and in good faith, but she was not rewarded – so she came to England.
What is England? What is Britain? It is a country full of neglected opportunities; of low hanging fruit. It is a country where many ordinary people despise ‘book learning’ and revel in the idea of being philistines. What is this island which eats so little fish despite being surrounded by the best fisheries in the world? What is this island where so few people walk in its beautiful countryside? Two summers ago we walked for days across southern England and met no one on the walk. Great Britain is a country lost in dreams of celebrity success. Brexit is a dream.
the best way to deal with the psychological trauma caused by climate change is to work together to mitigate climate change, to demand that governments reduce their carbon output.
But most societies are not like British society, which seems a little fairer, where there are a few more opportunities for outsiders. There are countries where poverty means your chances in life will definitely be limited no matter how much belief you have in yourself. Unless, that is, you turn to criminal activities like people smuggling or drug dealing.
When I see the shelf full of self-help books I am attracted to the new ones, they are designed to be attractive. I open them and flick through the pages and then realise that they seem to be written for idiots. The contents are printed in big letters with lots of space in the margins. The language and ideas are banal.
The reason why I smile when I see a shelf of self help books is because, recently, I watched a Facebook video made by my niece, a psychologist in training. She was giving advice to her peers, perhaps to those slightly younger than herself. In this video she talks about the anxiety that her generation feels about climate change. I was expecting her to suggest psychological coping mechanisms, and to discuss ways in which young people can self-comfort about the risks from the future.
many of your problems can only be solved collectively, not just by little old you.
Instead she ended on this note: by saying that the best way to deal with the psychological trauma caused by climate change is to work together to mitigate climate change, to demand that governments reduce their carbon output. This makes sense to me.
No, everything doesn’t just depend on you and the way you react to things. It depends on the society you live in and many of your problems can only be solved collectively, not just by little old you. Where are the self help books that say this?
Listen, you can do something about your situation, you can be successful, you can live a rich and full life – if you take collective action. If you join a union. If you get together with people in your community to make gardens and set up community centres. If you get together with people at school or university to demand more support and funds for schools and universities. If you get together with other people and make a trade union and demand democracy at work. If you get together with movements like Black Lives Matter and fight for social justice.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.